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Twenty-five years later, passions still strong on Southern Baptists' conservative takeover

Posted: Friday, June 04, 2004

HOUSTON (AP) Back in 1979, the Rev. Jimmy Allen thought the highlight of the Southern Baptist Convention's annual meeting would be a giant rally at the Astrodome featuring the Rev. Billy Graham.

Instead, Allen and other moderate leaders in the nation's largest Protestant denomination were caught by surprise as conservatives who had attacked the denomination's seminaries as ''hotbeds of liberalism'' flocked to the meeting.

There, they succeeded in electing a denominational president, the Rev. Adrian Rogers of Tennessee, who shared their view of biblical inerrancy meaning that the Bible is without error in any way, including historical details.

Some thought the vote was just a momentary change in direction, but Rogers' election turned out be a watershed moment for the denomination. The 16 million-member SBC shifted dramatically to the right politically and theologically and in the years that have followed, its conservative leaders have pushed hard against abortion rights, homosexuality and women pastors.

Twenty-five years later, passions remain strong on both sides when Baptists discuss the conservative takeover.

If not for the 1979 meeting, Southern Baptists ''would be battling the same issues of the Episcopalians and the Methodists and the United Presbyterians. We would have basically marginalized and homogenized the Southern Baptist Convention into a liberal, moderate denomination with very little impact,'' said the Rev. Jack Graham, the convention's president and pastor of the 22,000-member Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas.

Allen, then the convention's president and pastor of the First Baptist Church of San Antonio, sees it differently.

''I'm sad for the fact that the Baptist witness had a golden moment in which we were at our fullest strength, and both our image and the reality was that we were a caring group of people enthusiastic about sharing the message,'' said Allen, now 76 and retired in Georgia. ''Now, we are at a time when the word Baptist means squabbling and judgmentalism.''

The conservative takeover or ''take back,'' as the revolt's co-leader, Paul Pressler, refers to it came after Pressler and the Rev. Paige Patterson, then president of Criswell College, a Baptist school in Dallas, held an unprecedented series of pre-convention strategy sessions around the country.

Pressler and Patterson used a three-point message to recruit conservative ''messengers'' to the meeting:

They argued that the denomination was in trouble because of liberal seminary professors who were questioning biblical inerrancy.

They said the problem could be turned around by electing conservative presidents, who could use their powerful appointive authority to remove moderates from the boards of Baptist seminaries and other denominational agencies.

They urged like-minded Baptists to travel to Houston so their votes could be counted.

''We would get letters that said, 'Answer yes and no: Were Adam and Eve real people? Do you believe the devil is a real being? Do you believe in the virgin birth of Christ?''' said Bill J. Leonard, then a professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.

In the former Southern Baptist's view, the issue was far more complicated than the conservatives made it.

Still, the right won the fight in part because of the simplicity of its message.

''They said, 'You either believe the Bible or you don't,''' said Leonard, now dean of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. ''And the moderates said, 'Yes, we believe the Bible, but we've got a checklist here about how we believe the Bible.'''

Moderates, who accused conservatives of wanting to impose ''creedalism'' on the Baptist freedom to interpret Scriptures, brushed off the conservative challenge until it was too late, said Louis Moore, a former Houston Chronicle religion editor who has attended 30 Southern Baptist annual meetings.

''All of a sudden, these cars start coming in, and buses start coming in, with all these people they'd never seen before from Baptist churches. ... And they had all been rallied by Patterson and Pressler,'' said Moore, now owner of Hannibal Books, an evangelical Christian publishing house.

After the vote, the newly elected conservative president told reporters: ''I haven't come with blood in my eyes, but with love in my heart.'' However, Rogers added that he would not abide any ''compromise of the word of God.''

Now 72 and recuperating from heart surgery in March, Rogers declined an interview request.

Patterson, now president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, said the 1979 annual meeting ''was clearly a watershed convention since it marked the first successful assault on the liberal and neo-orthodox hegemony of the convention.''

At the time, most moderates saw Rogers' election as a temporary ''pendulum swinging,'' said the Rev. Charles Wade, executive director of the moderate Baptist General Convention of Texas, a 2-million-member group that clashes frequently with the Southern Baptist leadership.

But by 1985, when moderates came out on the losing end of a fiery meeting that drew 45,000 Southern Baptists to Dallas, it had become quite clear that the conservatives were not going away.

''I realized that the pendulum was not going to swing because the fundamentalists had nailed it to the wall,'' Wade said.

Eventually, disenfranchised moderates left the Southern Baptist Convention and formed their own group, the Atlanta-based Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, which has grown to about 1,800 member congregations. The Southern Baptist Convention has 42,000 member congregations. Some churches belong to both national associations.

Looking back, Pressler, 74, suggests conservatives were on a God-given mission in 1979.

Still, the retired Houston appellate court judge said the experience was painful, as critics accused him and Patterson of sinister motives.

''I had a very good, easy life and I forewent some other opportunities in order to be involved in the fight,'' he said. ''But I feel that the future of Southern Baptists, the salvation of many souls and the influence that we have in our country all depended on what happened.''

On the Net:

Southern Baptist Convention: http://www.sbc.net

Cooperative Baptist Fellowship: http://www.thefellowship.info



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